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20th Century Pub london pubs

Notable pubs: The Festival Inn, Poplar, 1951

The first significant post-war pub was more than a pub – it was a prototype, an exhibit and, perhaps surprisingly, built to last.

We first noticed The Festival Inn on the corner of Chrisp Street Market in Poplar, East London, more than a decade ago. On one of our long walks through the infinitely fascinating neighbourhoods between Walthamstow, where we lived, and the City of London, we spotted its fading 1970s Truman’s livery and paused to take some pictures.

Only years later, having developed an interest in architecture and town planning, and gearing up to write 20th Century Pub, did we realise its true significance.

In the late 1940s, Britain was still recovering from the Blitz. Rationing was still in place for many consumer items and the supply of building materials was severely restricted. The supply of men to use them was short, too, with many still serving in the armed forces. The only new pubs being opened were prefabs – and even those were sometimes controversial.

Then along came the Festival of Britain. Scheduled for 1951, it was designed to offer a vision of a post-austerity Britain, to lift the national mood and to put a definitive full stop on World War II.

For the Festival, all kinds of exceptions were made to the rules and regulations around construction and the organisers were given dibs on material and manpower. As well as the main Festival site on the South Bank of the Thames – the one you’ll generally see in old newsreel footage – there were other exhibitions across London and around the UK.

Among the most ambitious, and most practical, was the ‘Live Exhibition of Architecture’ at Poplar which saw the construction of the largest part of an entire new housing estate, from scratch. In fact, the LCC had been planning to build a new estate there anyway, to be known as Lansbury; the Festival just sped things up and ensured the involvement of Top Men.

The architectural exhibition was conceived by architect Frederick Gibberd, who also designed the shopping centre at Chrisp Street around which the estate centred. 

Newsreel footage of the King and Queen visiting the building site at Lansbury.

Gibberd played an important role in designing post-war Britain, from the distinctive BISF council house – a pragmatic response to the housing shortage – to the utopian vision of Harlow new town.

Gibberd’s design for Chrisp Street included two pubs, one at either corner of the shopping centre. Only one would be open in time to form part of the architectural exhibition, however – the appropriately named Festival Inn.

Detail from a plan of the exhibition from the official programme. The Festival Inn is marked 15, at the centre, with the other 15, on the right edge, being The Festive Briton, AKA Callaghan’s.

If Lansbury was a dry run for Harlow, Crawley and Stevenage, The Festival Inn was the prototype for their pubs. It was to be owned and operated by East End brewers Truman’s and took on the licence of The Grundy Arms, a Victorian pub that survived the Blitz but was demolished as part of the clearance of the Chrisp Street area.

The Grundy Arms. SOURCE: London Metropolitan Archive/PubWiki.

The exterior of The Festival Inn was designed by Gibberd because it was integrated into a block that housed a shopping arcade. The interior was the work of Truman’s own in-house designer R.W. Stoddart. It took the form of a traditional pub with multiple bars but with the clean, straight-edged, minimal look typical of post-war buildings.

Kerbey Street elevation of the Festival Inn by Frederick Gibberd. SOURCE: Brewing Trade Review, January 1951.

Artist’s impression of the Festival Inn – also by Gibberd? SOURCE: Brewing Trade Review, January 1951.

The interior of the pub, as described in The Brewing Trade Review for January 1951:

The house has a large public bar with recess for dart playing. The walls will be panelled to dado height with oak panelling. The fireplace will be of brick and stone with a large mural above it depicting a scene from the nearby docks. At the rear end of the bar a small glass dome is formed to give additional light to the bar. The service counter will have an oak-panelled front with a plastic top. Above the counter there will be cold cathode lighting to give a warm honey-coloured light… There are two saloon bars linked by an opening next to the fireplaces.

There was also a mirror featuring Abram Games’ famous Festival of Britain logo.

The pub sign, situated a little way from the entrance, was to depict children dancing round the famous space age Skylon as if it were a maypole – a fantastic representation of the collision of national tradition and futurism represented by the Festival as a whole.

SOURCE: The Sphere, 2 June 1951, via The British Newspaper Archive.

That theme continued in the publicity surrounding the pub’s construction and when its first chimney was completed in December 1950, a ceremony was held. Beer was delivered by horse-drawn dray and ‘ale wives’ in traditional costume hoisted a garland and served beer to the chimney by way of a blessing. Covering this event, The Sphere for 30 December 1950 described The Festival Inn as ‘an example of modern planning on traditional lines’.

In 1951, The Festival really was a sign of hope. Pubs destroyed in the Blitz would be replaced; communities would be rebuilt. It was open and trading as a pub from 2 May that year, serving both Festival visitors and market traders.

The similarly named Festive Briton, on the opposite side of the market square, didn’t open until 1952 and, anyway, lacked the razzle-dazzle that made The Festival a headline grabber.

Just as Lansbury would inspire the look and layout of new towns around the UK, The Festival Inn would produce its own offspring.

The Crane, Basildon. SOURCE: A Monthly Bulletin, June 1954.

Over the years, Lansbury weathered down and got worn in, and The Festival became part of the furniture. The sign disappeared at some point and the delicate new-Elizabethan lettering on the outer wall was replaced with Truman’s livery that was somehow both more up-to-date and more old-fashioned.

The Festival Inn c.2008.

Amazingly, 70 years on, The Festival Inn is still there and still trading, albeit on pause for COVID-19. It’s also remarkably well preserved inside and features in CAMRA’s official listing of historic pub interiors. It’s also now Grade II listed by Historic England, too, so is protected, at least structurally, whatever else might happen to the Chrisp Street Market area in years to come.

Could Britain’s first modern post-war estate pub also end up being its last? It’s entirely possible.

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20th Century Pub featuredposts pubs

The Comet, Hatfield, 1936: streamline total design

A totally modern pub, unapologetically of the 1930s, designed to look like an Art Deco racing aeroplane? No wonder it keeps going viral.

We first encountered The Comet, a big inter-war hotel on the Barnet bypass at Hatfield, when we began researching 20th Century Pub. Basil Oliver mentions it in his essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House and we found further information in this 2015 post by retro-vintage blogger Mark Amies.

Although we only had space for an overview of the ‘improved public house’ movement of the inter-war years, and a brief mention for The Comet, we actually gathered a fairly substantial amount of research material, and have collected more since.

Here, for example, is the opening of an article from the journal of the Royal Institue of British Architects (RIBA) from January 1937, about a month after The Comet opened:

This new hotel is of interest for the following principal reasons:

1. It represents a new type of hotel, namely, one that caters for the best class of traveller, yet is situated not in a large centre of population, but on an arterial road in rural surroundings. There is, however, an aerodrome, an aircraft factory and some house property nearby, the occupants of which will provide some local trade. Mainly, however, it will depend on visitors from London and travellers on the Great North Road.

2. The architect was given complete freedom not only in the general plan and design in all details. Such items as the lettered notices, the menu cards, most of the furniture and many of the textiles were designed by the architect. The ensemble, which is remarkably well carried out, has therefore unusual unity.

3. The plan is both simple and efficient. Its main element is the grouping of the public rooms round the service and kitchen. Yet so well is this done that the feeling of segregation of different classes of trade, commonly experienced in inns and public-houses having this plan, is absent. Each public room is a separate unit.

4. The general exterior form is novel, yet expresses the structure and plan exactly.

The Comet – full exterior view.
SOURCE: The Renaissance of the English Public House, Basil Oliver, 1947

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Beer history

A Brutalist Brewery: Arup and Carlsberg in Northampton, 1974

The March 1974 edition of the Arup Journal is an amazing artefact, offering a blow-by-blow breakdown of the design and construction of Carlsberg’s state of the art Danish brewery in Northampton.

You can read the full magazine here in PDF form, and it’s a lovely thing in its own right – all white space and sans serif, as stylish as the buildings it depicts.

Arup Journal, March 1974, cover.

Arup is an architecture firm founded in 1946 by Ove Arup, born in Newcastle  upon Tyne in the UK to Danish parents in 1895, and educated in Denmark. Though he died in 1988 the company lives on, its name a byword for modernism.

In 1970, Arup was commissioned by Carlsberg Brewery Ltd to design a new plant in Northampton in the English Midlands, just as the lager boom was beginning to bite. The cost of the project was £15 million; Carlsberg supplied the brewery equipment and defined the necessities of the space according to production need; and Arup commissioned Danish architect Knud Munk to produce a design that would “express the best in modern Danish architecture”.

As well as lots of detail in the text the magazine also includes process charts…

Process chart of lager brewing at Carlsberg.

…interior shots…

A control panel at the brewery.

…and lots of dramatic black-and-white photography of the brewery building at various stages of construction, set in the flat landscape against dramatic skies…

The exterior of the brewery.
CREDIT: Colin Westwood.

…which are either awe-inspiring or grim depending on your point of view.

It’s fascinating to think of this hulk appearing, with attendant talk of efficiency and automation, at just the exact moment the Campaign for Real Ale was taking off. This is about as far from all that imagery of wooden casks, old inns and pewter tankards as you can get.

And the emphasis throughout on the Danishness of the project – Danish brewers, Danish architect, officially opened by the Queen of Denmark – while canny in terms of underlining the authenticity of the product was also at odds with the growing sense that Local was somehow a sacred virtue.

We’ve been researching this building and Carlsberg’s arrival in the UK on and off for years and this showed up in one of our periodic check-ins. There are times we worry about the state of corporate archives and others when we feel like we’re living in the best possible age, with digitising getting cheaper and companies realising the value of their own history.

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20th Century Pub pubs

Further Reading #2: RIBA Wonderland

Researching 20th Century Pub we spent time in some great libraries and archives with rich collections of pub- and beer-related material. This is the second in a series of blog posts intended to highlight great resources you can go and look up yourself.

We had assumed that the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) might be difficult to get into but, no, it’s a doddle. You just turn up at the gorgeous building on Portland Place, London W1, and sign yourself in with the requirement to show some sort of photo ID the only hurdle to jump.

The library itself is small but tranquil with plenty of quiet bays, balconies and corners to work in. There are lots of desks and plenty of power points, and the library has a liberal policy with regard to the use of cameras and smartphones, as long as you obey the usual rules of copyright and redistribution. (Which, of course, we have slightly bent by using some of the images below, but only at low-res, mostly grainy and out of focus at that, and purely by way of commentary on the library itself.)

Open Access

There’s a huge amount of stuff relevant to the interests of pub geeks available on open access before you even start bothering the stacks. There’s a comprehensive collection of books on pub architecture, for example, including standard works by people such as Ben Davis and Mark Girouard as well as more niche publications. Lynn Pearson’s 1989 book The Northumbrian Pub: an architectural history was nice to stumble across, for example.

There are also bound volumes of various architecture and building magazines dating back to the Victorian period that you are free to take from the shelf and browse. Some are indexed better than others and references to pubs in particular can be hard to track down, listed as they might be under public houses, taverns, inns, pubs, drinking establishments, hotels depending on the customs of each year and the prejudices of the indexer.

We found lots to enjoy in particular in The Architect and Building News, The Architects’ JournalThe Brick Builder and Building. Pubs didn’t come up all that often beyond bouts of bickering on the letters pages but when they did it tended to be in substantial features with lots of pictures and plans. The issue of ABN for 23 October 1936, for example, had a big, lavishly illustrated feature on the Myllet Arms at Perivale, with credits for every detail of the decor and building: “Carving to Sign: Gertrude Hermes”. The AJ for 24 November 1938 had an epic article by the architect of the Myllet Arms, E.B. Musman, called ‘Public Houses: Design and Construction’, with descriptions, maps and photographs of tons of pubs, and 1930s Art Deco examples in particular.

Hand-drawn plan.
A diagram from Musman’s 1938 article.

Another article of particular note — do go and look it up if you get chance — is ‘The Post-War Pub’ from the Architects’ Journal Information Library for 20 May 1964. It is based on a survey of post-war pubs commissioned by the Brewers’ Society and led by architect Geoffrey Salmon who we assume also wrote the article. If you’re interested, as we are, in estate pubs, flat-roofed pubs, booze bunkers, or whatever else you want to call them, this is the motherlode, crammed with acute observations, photographs and statistics — this is where we found the estimate of the number of pubs built in the post-war period cited in 20th Century Pub.

Title page: The Post-War Pub.

At this point we should mention the staff who could not have been more helpful on our multiple visits. At one point, having explained what we were researching, one of the librarians got a bit animated trying to recall some nugget of information. He turned up at the desk where we were working half an hour later with an early 20th century article about pubs that was confusingly indexed anywhere but that he remembered having come across years before. Now that’s above and beyond.

Title page: The Modern Public House.

Into the Stacks

There’s also a huge amount of material kept under lock and key but no less accessible for that. As it’s a small, fairly quiet library nothing takes long to emerge once a slip has been submitted — ten minutes, perhaps? It was through this route that we were finally able to get our hands on Basil Oliver’s 1934 book The Modern Public House. As it happened it contained most of the same material as his later must-read The Renaissance of the English Public House but it was good to verify that with our own eyes, and also to read the short introduction by the great Imperial architect and occasional pub designer Edwin Lutyens:

The Public House represents what should be the hub of our wheel of Life, essential to our material need and second only to the Church that stands and represents our spiritual necessity. The Church is to the spirit as the Inn is to the flesh and, if good and well designed, they baulk the Devil himself.

Of less interest, perhaps, are the various government publications on planning, housing and public health, most of which mention pubs only in passing. Still, we found them useful, in lieu of easy to access online versions. (Which, seriously, there ought to be.) The same might be said for obscure architectural guidebooks such as Hugh Casson’s New Sights of London from 1938 which has notes on a few pubs and includes this particularly lovely illustration:

The Comet, Hatfield, as illustrated in 1938.

So, there you have it: perhaps our favourite library of all of those we explored in the last year or two. You can search the catalogue online — try ‘pubs’ for starters and if the mile-long list of results doesn’t give you the urge to visit then nothing will.

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pubs

Truman’s Post-War Pubs, 1967

This set of pictures and accompanying notes come from editions of the Truman Hanbury & Buxton in-house magazine, the Black Eagle Journal, published in 1967.

As before, we’ve tried to include information on when buildings were actually opened; credits for photographers and architects where available; and updates on how the buildings look 50 years on.

1. The Elephant & Castle, London

Exterior of the Elephant & Castle, a brutalist block.

We’re starting with a bit of a superstar pub — one many of us will have heard of, if not visited, and after which this whole area of London is named. We’ve got an earlier article from the Licensed Victuallers’ Gazette boasting about the modernisation of the pub in 1900. By the mid-1960s, when the area was being comprehensively redeveloped, that Victorian pub was doomed.

The idea for this uncomprisingly brutal new design seems to have come from the Greater London Council’s planners and the developer’s architect Ernő Goldfinger who suggested that ‘the public house should appear to float on glass’. Truman’s in-house architect, Frederick G. Hall, interpreted that instruction as above, his design being implemented by A.P. Ciregna. It’s nice that in this case we not only have an architect’s credit but also a photo of Mr Hall drinking the first pint pulled at the new pub while being applauded by brewery director Sir Thomas Buxton.

F.G. Hall drinks the first pint at the Elephant in 1967.

Footnotes: pumpclips have definitely arrived by this point but that they are tiny; note also dimple mugs, which had overtaken ten-siders by this point.